The Saratogian (Saratoga, NY)

The strange season be­gins with empty are­nas

- By JOHN MAR­SHALL Sports · College Sports · Basketball · Infectious Diseases · Health Conditions · North Carolina · University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill · National Collegiate Athletic Association · Tom Izzo · Jim Boeheim · Connecticut · Virginia · Towson, MD · Maine · Kentucky · Iowa · Los Angeles · South Carolina · National Basketball Association · Georgetown University · George Town · Patrick Ewing · Newport County A.F.C. · Georgia · Columbus State Community College · Columbus · California State University · Oklahoma · Kansas · Montana · University of Nevada, Las Vegas · Pennsylvania · Pittsburgh · Georgia Institute of Technology · Atlantic Coast Conference · Illinois · Ayo Dosunmu · Texas · Arlington · Roy Williams · Rutgers University · Ron Harper · House of Pain · College of Charleston · Charleston · Women's National Basketball Association · Jack Thompson · NCAA Division II · California State University, Fullerton · Fullerton · Monmouth, IL · Oklahoma State University–Stillwater

The strangest an­tic­i­pated season in col­lege bas­ket­ball his­tory kicked off Wed­nes­day with dozens of games at are­nas across the coun­try.

Like ev­ery­thing else in this pandemic world, it was odd and dis­jointed.

Can­cel­la­tions, protests, quar­an­tined play­ers, pi­pedin crowd noise, masked cheer­lead­ers, so­cially dis­tanced bench seat­ing — the start of the season matched the chaotic build up to it.

One day down, who knows how­many more left.

“I’d like nor­malcy, I’d like a rou­tine, but that’s not what we have right now,” North Carolina coach Roy Wil­liams said. “You can do ev­ery­thing you can pos­si­bly do and still have a slipup. But the process, you need to do ev­ery­thing you can pos­si­bly do and be pre­pared to han­dle ev­ery­thing as well.”

Col­lege bas­ket­ball, like the rest of the sportsworl­d, was thrown into dis­ar­ray last March when the surg­ing coro­n­avirus pandemic shut down ev­ery­thing.

Can­ce­la­tion of the NCAA Tour­na­ment cost the NCAA $375 mil­lion in rev­enue, so the or­ga­ni­za­tion that runs col­lege sports was de­ter­mined to get through the 2020-21 season.

The pre­lude to Wed­nes­day’s start fol­lowed the lead of a col­lege foot­ball season filled with can­ce­la­tions, shut­downs and last-minute re­place­ment games.

Dozens of col­lege bas­ket­ball pro­grams shut down for pos­i­tive COVIDtests, big- name coaches like Tom Izzo, Scott Drew, Jim Boe­heim among them. Games can­celed al­most hourly. Pro­grams moved in and out of mul­ti­team events like a game of whack-a-mole.

The first big event in Con­necti­cut dubbed Bub­bleville be­came more like Jug­gleville as teams dropped out, re­place­ments moved in and craft­ing a sched­ule be­came like sort­ing through AAU brack­ets.

While gam­blers so­cially dis­tanced in­side the Mo­he­gan Sun casino, no fans were al­lowed in the 10,000seat arena for the open­ing game be­tween Vir­ginia and Tow­son, a late re­place­ment for coro­n­avirus- af­fected Maine.

Yelling coaches and squeak­ing sneak­ers echoed off the empty seats, and seats on the benches were spread out for so­cial dis­tanc­ing — as they were in are­nas across the coun­try.

Cardboard cutouts filled most are­nas and recorded crowd noise was piped in to re­place the full-throated roars of real fans.

“It’s weird im­ple­mented crowd noise, just a bunch of cardboard cutouts star­ing at you and it’s just ‘ this is dif­fer­ent,’” Rut­gers guard Ron Harper Jr. said.

North Carolina played its hype video be­fore an­nounc­ing the start­ing line­ups and played House of Pain’s “Jump Around” be­fore play­ing Col­lege of Charleston— de­spite play­ing in front a hand­ful of player fam­i­lies and staff at the 21,750-seat Smith Cen­ter.

Ken­tucky’s Rupp Arena, typ­i­cally one of the tough­est road venues in col­lege bas­ket­ball, was lim­ited to 15% ca­pac­ity and felt like the doors had just opened in­stead of the usual buzz at tipoff.

“We have to cre­ate our own en­ergy,” said Iowa pre­sea­son All-Amer­i­can

Luka Garza, who had 26 points and 10 re­bounds in a win over North Carolina Cen­tral. “As a bas­ket­ball player, I have no prob­lem do­ing that. I play the same whether I’m at LA Fit­ness or in front of 15,000 fans.”

Ten mem­bers of the topranked South Carolina women’s team fol­lowed the so­cial jus­tice lead of the NBA and WNBA by re­main­ing seated for the na­tional an­them be­fore their 119- 38 win over Charleston.

“We just wanted ev­ery­one to know we haven’t for­got­ten about what’s go­ing on,” guard Zia Cooke said. “Of course, this is a bas­ket­ball game, but we wanted to use our plat­form.”

Nu­mer­ous other teams sat or knelt dur­ing the an­them, in­clud­ing North Carolina State’s women. The Vir­ginia men’s team had “UNITY” on their warmup shirts and Tow­son’s play­ers had a raised fist on their backs.

Ge­orge­town coach Pa­trick Ewing made a dif­fer­ent kind of state­ment dur­ing the Hoyas’ sea­sonopen­ing game against Ma r yland- Ba l t imore County, drap­ing a white towel over his shoul­der in mem­ory John Thomp­son. Sev­eral other coaches fol­lowed suit to honor the Hall of Fame coach who died in Au­gust at 78.

Some teams nev­er­made it to the floor.

Ge­or­gia’s opener against Colum­bus State was can­celed just hours be­fore tipoff due to pos­i­tive COVID-19 tests within the Di­vi­sion II team. Lip­scomb’s game against Camp­bellsville Har­rods­burg also was can­celed due to coro­n­avirus is­sues.

On the women’s side, No. 9 UCLA had its game called off af­ter an 80-minute wait for Cal State Fuller­ton to get COVID-19 test re­sults and Rut­gers’ opener was called off due to a pos­i­tive test in Monmouth’s pro­gram.

“This is ob­vi­ously a sit­u­a­tion un­like any other I’ve had to deal with in my 31 sea­sons of coach­ing col­lege bas­ket­ball,” Ge­or­gia coach Tom Crean said. “This season al­ready was a sur­real ex­pe­ri­ence all around. This is truly that.”

Ok­la­homa and Monmouth be­came the lat­est teams to pause all ac­tiv­i­ties due to pos­i­tive COVID-19 tests.

The game went on mostly as usual on the court.

Drake pulled off the first up­set of the season, win­ning 80-70 at Kansas State. Mon­tana State of the Big Sky Con­fer­ence fol­lowed with a 91-78 rout at UNLV, Saint Fran­cis (Pa.) beat Pitts­burgh for the first time in 30 tries and Ge­or­gia State beat Ge­or­gia Tech in four over­times for its first win over an ACC team.

Illi­nois se­nior Ayo Do­sunmu showed off why he was a pre­sea­son Al­lAmer­i­can, finishing with 28 points, 10 re­bounds and five as­sists in a 122- 60 win over North Carolina A&T.

Her­alded Ok­la­homa State fresh­man Cade Cun­ning­ham, an­other pre­sea­son All-Amer­i­can, had a stel­lar de­but, finishing with 21 points and 10 re­bounds in a 75- 68win over Texas-Ar­ling­ton.

The day be­fore Thanks­giv­ing, play­ers, coaches and fans were thank­ful to have col­lege bas­ket­ball back. Where it goes from here, no­body knows.

 ??  ?? Hous­ton guard Tra­mon Mark shoots a 3-point bas­ket dur­ing the sec­ond half of an NCAA col­lege bas­ket­ball game against La­mar, Wed­nes­day, Nov. 25, 2020, in Hous­ton.
Hous­ton guard Tra­mon Mark shoots a 3-point bas­ket dur­ing the sec­ond half of an NCAA col­lege bas­ket­ball game against La­mar, Wed­nes­day, Nov. 25, 2020, in Hous­ton.

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